Durham’s Black Wall Street and other places like it in the country came to life during an era of racial apartheid.
Trapped in servitude long after enslavement, most African Americans worked for white people on farms, in tobacco, or as domestic laborers. Starting a business offered an opportunity to escape poverty and debt to white landowners.
A view of Hayti, Durham’s central black business district, looking towards downtown Durham. Many black business owners, employees, and their family members remember rarely needing to leave the safety of the black community.
Courtesy Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Never forget that Durham is in the South and that around these 5,000 Negroes are twice as many whites who own most of the property, dominate the political life exclusively, and form the main current of social life.
White supremacist victories in the North Carolina election of 1898, the year of NC Mutual’s founding, rolled back black participation in politics for nearly a century. Black leaders championed business as an alternate pathway to freedom, away from white society.
Business offered some protection from the injustices of Jim Crow. However, the threat of poverty and violence remained ever-present, even for the most successful.
In front of the offices of the black-owned newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina, November 10, 1898. That election year, white vigilantes took over the government of Wilmington through a murderous coup. Elected officials across North Carolina came into power on a white supremacist ticket.
Courtesy the State Archives of North Carolina
The staff of Wilmington, North Carolina’s black-owned newspaper, The Daily Standard, ca. 1890. White vigilantes burned down the newspaper’s office and ran its staff run out of town during the 1898 Wilmington Massacre.
“Staff of the Daily Standard,” ca. 1890-1898, Courtesy Alex L. Manly Papers, Digital Collections, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University.
The Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after white attackers murdered hundreds of black residents in June 1921. Before Durham, many knew Greenwood with its thriving business district as “Black Wall Street.”
Courtesy American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Washington, DC), LC-A6197
NC Mutual built a new six-story home office in 1921 (back far right). It looked out over downtown Durham. However, aware of the threat of white violence, black business leaders ensured that theirs was not the tallest building in town.
Durham skyline featuring North Carolina Mutual in 1921, Courtesy North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, and North Carolina Central University.
For some, Black Wall Street offered entrance to a middle-class life. Yet when business declined, few of its employees had a financial safety net. During the Great Depression, NC Mutual staff member Fannie Rosser (top right) wrote, “We are back on the breadline again.”
Courtesy Fannie B. Rosser Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
William Anderson Amey (left) and his business partner, 1910. Amey’s grandfather was enslaved near Durham and had few options but to become a tenant farmer for his former owner after emancipation. His descendant sought out business as an escape from bondage.
Carolina Funeral Home, 1910. Courtesy Durham Historic Photographic Archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library.
Durham, near downtown, 1940. Once outside of their neighborhood, black residents faced the violence of white Durham during Jim Crow–especially those who traveled daily to work outside of Black Wall Street or Hayti.
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection